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Company Town

George Cheeks takes over as CBS Entertainment chief as Joe Ianniello exits early

CBS Chief Executive Joe Ianniello is making an early exit.
CBS Chief Executive Joe Ianniello is making an early exit.
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

ViacomCBS announced a high-level changing of the guard, just eight weeks after the two media companies reunited.

The company on Friday named George Cheeks as president and chief executive of CBS Entertainment Group, effective March 23. The move was expected. He will replace Joseph Ianniello, who was promoted to CEO of the CBS-branded properties in December and is now making an early exit.

Cheeks, 55, had been the second-in-command at NBCUniversal Content Studios. He will have a more influential role and much larger portfolio managing the CBS-branded assets, including the CBS television network, CBS News and CBS Sports, the television studios, the syndication group and TV stations. He will work with the company’s digital group on ventures, including the streaming service CBS All Access. Cheeks spent more than a decade at Viacom before joining NBC in 2012.

“I am incredibly honored to join the stellar CBS team and help lead these incredible brands forward,” Cheeks said in a statement. “From news to sports to entertainment, CBS sets the standard, and I look forward to building on this tremendous foundation as we find new and innovative ways to deliver CBS to audiences worldwide.”

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Cheeks resigned from NBC this month. He served as co-chairman of NBC Entertainment, where he was jointly responsible for the network’s prime-time, late-night and scripted daytime programming, including business affairs, marketing, communications, scheduling, West Coast research and digital operations and first-run syndication.

Before joining NBC in 2012, Cheeks served as executive vice president for business affairs and general counsel for Viacom Music and Entertainment Group, while also heading standards and practices for Viacom Media. Before that, he served in legal roles at Viacom cable channels Nickelodeon, MTV, CMT and Logo.

Cheeks held positions at Castle Rock Entertainment and the law firms Loeb & Loeb and Hansen, Jacobson, Teller, Hoberman, Newman, Warren & Richman.

It will be the first time in a quarter-century that CBS has turned to an outsider to manage the business. The broadcasting company, known for such hits as “NCIS,” “60 Minutes” and “Survivor,” has long favored grooming executives from within.

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For a while, it appeared Ianniello would be part of the senior team, helping oversee the integration of Viacom and CBS. He received a $70-million stock award as consolation for failing to win the top job at the combined ViacomCBS. That position went to Viacom head Bob Bakish, who has been assembling his own team.

Ianniello, who has spent more than 22 years at CBS, managed the publicly traded company through a tumultuous period.

He became acting CEO in September 2018 after former Chief Executive Leslie Moonves was forced to resign amid a sexual harassment scandal. Ianniello long served as Moonves’ top deputy, and aided the former CEO when he was battling CBS’ controlling shareholder, Shari Redstone, for control of the company. That history, and concerns about CBS’ corporate culture, probably hurt Ianniello’s long-term prospects.

Last summer, when asked whether he was worried that he may be a short-timer, Ianniello told the Los Angeles Times: “My focus is singularly on the operations of the business. I hope to end my career here at CBS.”

The Brooklyn, N.Y., native made key moves, included naming well-liked veteran producer Susan Zirinsky to run CBS News and tapping respected Showtime Networks head David Nevins as chief creative officer.

Ianniello steered the company’s efforts to become less dependent on advertising by getting fees from cable and satellite providers for carrying its TV signals and led its entry into the digital streaming business with CBS All Access. The strategy helped the company set records for revenue and earnings per share last year, though steep challenges remain.

His 15-month employment agreement, reached in November, provided him as much as $31 million to serve through the end of 2020. If he receives his full payout, Ianniello will walk away with $100 million.

Meanwhile, ViacomCBS has begun a round of layoffs. The company is expected to cut hundreds of jobs in Los Angeles and New York in order to extract $500 million in cost savings — a promise made to Wall Street. Six senior ad executives left the company this month as part of a restructuring.

Times staff writer Stephen Battaglio contributed to this report.


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